March 22 – He stared Hitler in the face and didn’t blink

March 21, 2013

Blessed Clemens August Graf von Galen

The Official Portrait Of Blessed Clemens August Graf Von Galen

The Official Portrait Of Blessed Clemens August Graf Von Galen

“Lion of Münster”
Born     March 16, 1878
Dinklage Castle, Dinklage,
Grand Duchy of Oldenburg,
German Confederation
Died     March 22, 1946 (aged 68)
Münster, Province of Westphalia, Germany
Beatified     9 October 2005 by Pope Benedict XVI
Feast     22 March

The Blessed Clemens August Graf von Galen (March 16, 1878 – March 22, 1946) was a German count, Bishop of Münster, and cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church.

Born into a venerable noble family, von Galen received part of his education in Austria from the Jesuits at the Stella Matutina School in the border town of Feldkirch, on the Austrian border with Switzerland and Liechtenstein. After his ordination he worked in Berlin at Saint Matthias, where he became a close friend of Nuncio Eugenio Pacelli, later to be Pope Pius XII. He disliked intensely the liberal values of the Weimar Republic and was against individualism, socialism, and democracy. Having served in Berlin parishes in years 1906–1929, he became the pastor of Münster’s St. Lamberti Church, where he was noted for his political conservatism. He expressed his opposition to modernity in his book Die Pest des Laizismus und ihre Erscheinungsformen [The Plague of Laicism and its Forms of Expression] (1932).

The von Galen family home in Burg Dinklage.

Galen began to criticize Hitler’s movement in 1934. He condemned the Nazi worship of race in a pastoral letter on January 29, 1934, and assumed responsibility for the publication of a pamphlet of essays criticizing the ideology of Alfred Rosenberg and defending the teachings of the Catholic Church. He was an outspoken critic of certain Nazi policies, emerging in 1941 as one of the church’s most outspoken critics of the Third Reich, issuing forceful, public denunciations of its euthanasia programs and persecution of the Catholic Church. He supported the German Confederation. Thus, he judged that the Treaty of Versailles was unjust and that Bolshevism was a threat to Germany and the Church.

Together with Munich’s Cardinal Faulhaber and Berlin’s Bishop Preysing, Galen drafted Pius XI’s encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (14 March 1937).

Bl. Clemens August (third from left) at age six.

Early years

Von Galen belonged to one of the oldest of the most distinguished noble families of Westphalia, and was born in the Catholic southern part of the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg (Oldenburger Münsterland, near the German border with the Netherlands), on the Burg Dinklage, now in the state of Lower Saxony. The von Galen name had long been associated with the region; the von Galens had been there since 1667, when Christoph Bernhard von Galen was named first bishop of Münster after putting down the Anabaptists. Clemens August was the son of Count Ferdinand Heribert von Galen, a member of the Imperial German parliament (Reichstag) for the Catholic Centre Party, and Elisabeth von Spee, the eleventh of thirteen children.

Until 1890 Clemens August and his brother Franz were tutored at home. He received his main schooling at a Jesuit School, Stella Matutina in the Vorarlberg, Austria, where only Latin was allowed to be spoken. Jesuits were not permitted in Münster at this time, evidence of the lasting impact of the Kulturkampf, so Clemens had to leave his family and state to receive this Jesuit education. He was not an easy student to teach, and his Jesuit superior wrote to his parents: “Infallibility is the main problem with Clemens, who under no circumstance will admit that he may be wrong. It is always his teachers and educators who are wrong.

Bl. Clemens August von Galen in 1899 after a hunt.

Bl. Clemens August von Galen in 1899 after a hunt.

Because Prussia did not recognize the Stella Matutina academy, Clemens spent the last years of his education near home. In 1894 he returned home to attend a public school in Vechta and by 1896 both Clemens and Franz had passed the examinations that qualified them to attend a university. Upon graduation, his fellow students wrote in his yearbook: “Clemens doesn’t make love or go drinking, he does not like worldly deceit.” By 1896 he went to Switzerland to study at the Catholic University of Freiburg, which had been established in 1886 by the Dominicans, where he encountered the writings of Thomas Aquinas. In 1897 he began to study a variety of topics, including literature, history, and philosophy. Following the first winter semester at Freiburg, Clemens and Fritz went on an extended visit to Rome, for three months. At the end of the visit he told Fritz that he had decided to become a priest though he was unsure whether to become a contemplative Benedictine, or a Jesuit. In 1899 he met Pope Leo XIII in a private audience. He studied at the Theological Faculty and Convent in Innsbruck, founded in 1669 by the Jesuits, where scholastic philosophy was emphasized, and new concepts and ideas avoided. In 1903 von Galen left Innsbruck to enter the seminary in Münster, and he was ordained a priest on May 28, 1904. At first he worked for a family member, the Auxiliary Bishop of Münster, as Chaplain. Soon he moved to Berlin, where he worked as parish priest at St. Matthias Church.


In Berlin (1906–1929)

Von Galen arrived in Berlin on April 23, 1906, and stayed until April 16, 1929—the longest time he spent in any one place. Germany’s capital contained districts of Protestant elites, a Catholic community composed of primarily working-class people and a Jewish community of both middle-class and poorer immigrants. It was a booming commercial and cultural metropolis at the time von Galen arrived—its population increased from 900,000 in 1871 to slightly less than 4 million by 1920. For the working class, Catholicism and Social Democracy competed for allegiance. In this atmosphere von Galen sought to be an energetic and idealistic leader of his parish—he made visits to the sick and poor, became president of the Catholic Young Mens Association, gave religious instruction in the schools, and for his efforts he was named Papa Galen by the parishioners he served.

Berlin in 1904. View on the Hackescher Markt and Rosenthaler Straße in Spandauer Vorstadt, Berlin (now in Mitte district).

In the First World War Von Galen’s position was that he wished to serve, and volunteered to serve, in order to demonstrate his loyalty to the Kaiser. As parish priest, he encouraged his parishioners to serve their country willingly. In August 1917 he made a visit to the front lines in France and was uplifted by the optimistic disposition of the troops. In 1916 and 1917 he reacted to reports concerning the German military’s planned colonization of Eastern Europe by welcoming the plan of occupation and stating that German Catholics should be moved into the area, especially in Lithuania. Following the German surrender in November 1918 von Galen, still in Berlin, dreaded the loss of the monarchy and feared the poor would embrace radicalism and anarchy. To deal with immediate problems of hunger and poverty he worked to create soup kitchens, aid societies, and clothing drives. He was suspicious of the new Weimar democracy and believed “the revolutionary ideas of 1918 had caused considerable damage to Catholic Christianity.”[Heinrich Portmann, Kardinal von Galen Aschendorff, Münster, Westfalen, 1948, 66] Throughout the Weimar years he remained on the right of German politics. He often criticized the Catholic Centre Party for being too left-wing. He believed the Dolchstosslegende explained the German Army’s defeat in 1918—that Germany had been destroyed by defeatist elements on the home front. He deplored the disappearance of the monarchy.

Bishop of Münster

A commanding presence (6 feet 7 inches (2.01 m) tall)—his rooms were furnished simply, he wore unpretentious clothing, and he spoke plainly—he did not like the theatre, secular music (except for military marches), or literature. His only reported vice, which he refused to give up, was smoking his pipes.

Consecration of the Bishop of Münster, Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen, accompanied by His Eminence Cardinal Schulte of Cologne, Bishop Bornewasser of Trier and State Dr. William Berning-Osnabrück in solemn procession from the Bishop’s Palace to the Cathedral.

Having moved from Berlin, he became the pastor of Münster’s St. Lamberti Church where he initially upset some parishioners with his political conservatism. At a meeting in Munster of the Association of Catholic Academicians in June 1933, Galen spoke against those scholars who had criticised the Nazi government and called for a just and objective evaluation of Hitler’s new political movement. Von Galen was elected bishop of Münster in 1933. Documents in the Vatican Archives, which opened related information in 2003, indicate that von Galen was not the popular candidate to succeed Münster’s bishop, Johannes Poggenburg, and was elected only after other candidates had turned down the offer, and in spite of a protest from Nuncio Orsenigo to Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who expressed his opinion that von Galen was bossy and paternalistic in his public utterances.[Ludger Grevelhörster: Kardinal Clemens August Graf von Galen in seiner Zeit. Aschendorff, Münster 2005, S. 57] He was chosen for the office by Pius XI on September 5, 1933. On October 28, he was consecrated as bishop in Münster’s cathedral. Storm troopers attended, reportedly standing in formation with swastika flags.

Once elected, von Galen campaigned against the totalitarian approach of the Nazi Party in national education, appealing to parents to insist on Catholic teaching in schools. He successfully used the recently agreed-upon Reichskonkordat (§ 21, granting the Church the right to determine its own religious instruction) to force the National Socialists to permit continued Catholic instruction in Catholic schools. It was one of the first instances where the Reichskonkordat was used by the Church as a legal instrument opposing the government, which was one of the intentions of Pope Pius XI.

Shortly thereafter, von Galen began to attack the racial ideologies of the new regime, partly poking fun at it, partly critiquing its ideological basis as published by Alfred Rosenberg. He declared it as unacceptable to refuse the Old Testament because of its Jewish authorship, and to limit morality and virtue to the perceived usefulness of a particular race.

Protests against Nazi crimes

In 1941 von Galen gave a string of sermons protesting against Nazi policies on euthanasia, Gestapo terror, forced sterilization and concentration camps. His attacks on the Nazis were so severe that Nazi official Walter Tiessler proposed in a letter to Martin Bormann that the Bishop be executed.

On July 13, 1941, von Galen publicly attacked the regime for its Gestapo tactics of terror, including disappearances without trial, the closing of Catholic institutions without any stated justifications, and the resultant fear imposed on all Germans throughout the nation. The powerful Gestapo, he argued, reduced everybody, even the most decent and loyal citizens, to being afraid of ending up in a basement prison or a concentration camp. As the country was at war, von Galen rejected the notion that his speech undermined German solidarity or unity. Using the lines of his friend Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, as written in Opus Justitiae Pax and Justitia fundamentum Regnorum, von Galen noted that “Peace is the work of Justice and Justice, the basis for dominion,” then attacked the Third Reich for undermining justice, the belief in justice and for reducing the German people to a state of permanent fear, even cowardice. He concluded: “As a German, as a decent citizen I demand Justice.”

Cardinal Clemens August Graf von Galen

Cardinal Clemens August Graf von Galen

In a second sermon on July 20, 1941, von Galen informed the faithful that all written protests against Nazi hostilities had proved to be useless. The confiscation of religious institutions continued unabated. Members of religious orders were still being deported or jailed. He asked his listeners to be patient and to endure, and that the German people were being destroyed not by the Allied bombing from the outside, but from negative forces within.

On August 3, 1941, von Galen informed his listeners in a third sermon about the continued desecration of Catholic churches, the closing of convents and monasteries, and the deportation and murder of mentally ill people (who were sent to undisclosed destinations), while a notice was sent to family members stating that the person in question had died. This is murder, he exclaimed, unlawful by divine and German law, a rejection of the laws of God. He informed them that he had forwarded his evidence to the State Attorney. “These are people, our brothers and sisters; maybe their life is unproductive, but productivity is not a justification for killing.” If that were indeed a justification for execution, he reasoned, everybody would have to be afraid to even go to a doctor for fear of what might be discovered. The social fabric would be affected. Von Galen then remarked that a regime which can do away with the Fifth Commandment (thou shalt not kill) can destroy the other commandments as well.

Blessed Clemens

The sermons were reproduced and sent all over Germany to families, and to German soldiers on the Western and Eastern Fronts. The resulting local protests in Germany broke the secrecy which had hitherto surrounded the euthanasia program Aktion T4. The local Nazi Gauleiter was furious and demanded the immediate arrest of von Galen. However, Joseph Goebbels, Bormann and others preferred to wait until the end of World War II, to avoid undermining German morale in a heavily Catholic area. Of von Galen’s remarks, perhaps the most effective was his question asking whether permanently injured German soldiers would fall under the programme as well. A year later, the euthanasia program was still active, but the regime was conducting it in greater secrecy.

According to Robert Jay Lifton, “[t]his powerful, populist sermon was immediately reproduced and distributed throughout Germany — indeed, it was dropped among German troops by British Royal Air Force flyers. Galen’s sermon probably had a greater impact than any other one statement in consolidating anti-‘euthanasia’ sentiment.”[Robert Jay Lifton, Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, 94] Howard K. Smith called von Galen “heroic”, writing that the movement he represented was so widespread that the Nazi government could not arrest the bishop.[Smith, Howard K. (1942). Last Train from Berlin. Knopf. pp. 277.]

Cardinal Clemens

German patriot

Von Galen openly supported the Protestant Paul von Hindenburg against the Catholic candidate Wilhelm Marx in the presidential elections of 1925. He was known to be a German patriot and a fierce anti-Communist who favoured the battle on the Eastern Front against Joseph Stalin’s regime in the Soviet Union. His views on communism were largely formed as a consequence of the Stalinization and relentless persecution of Christians within the Soviet Union since 1918, during which virtually all Catholic bishops were either killed or forced underground. He welcomed the 1941 German war against the USSR as a positive development.

A sermon the Bishop gave in 1941 served as the inspiration for the anti-Nazi group The White Rose, and the sermon itself was the group’s first pamphlet.

Members of the White Rose, Munich 1942. From left: Hans Scholl, his sister Sophie Scholl, and Christoph Probst, all of them were declared “enemies of the State” and they were immediately beheaded after their conviction.

Generalmajor Hans Oster, a devout Lutheran and leading member of the German Resistance, once said of Bishop von Galen: “He’s a man of courage and conviction. And what resolution in his sermons! There should be a handful of such people in all our churches, and at least two handfuls in the Wehrmacht. If there were, Germany would look quite different!”

The published sermons of Von Galen show that he condemned the racist deportations of the Nazis. Von Galen, further, suffered virtual house arrest from 1941 until the end of the war.

After the war, his indignation turned on the British occupiers, who, in his view, complicated by hostile acts (including starvation rations for the common people) an already difficult life in post-war Germany. The British responded by taking away his car and thus preventing him from visiting parishes and carrying out planned confirmations. On April 13, Galen went to American authorities to protest against Russian soldiers’ raping of German women, and against American and British forces’ plundering of German homes, factories, and offices, especially at night. On July 1, 1945, he denounced “the ransacking of our homes[, already] destroyed by bombs”, “the pillaging and destruction of our houses and farms in the countryside by armed bands of robbers”, the “murder of defenceless men”, “the rape of German women and girls by bestial lechers” (it was estimated that 2 million German women were raped, with a ten percent death rate mainly from suicide; women of other nationalities were raped, too), and the indifference of the occupying authorities to the risk of famine in Germany: all these horrors finding justification on the basis of “the false view that all Germans are criminals and deserve the most severe punishment, including death and extermination!”.

Bl. Cardinal Clemens in his carriage.

Bl. Cardinal Clemens in his carriage.

In a joint interview with British officials, Von Galen told the international press that, “just as I fought against Nazi injustices, I will fight any injustice, no matter where it comes from”. He repeated these claims in a sermon on July 1, 1945, which, as in the Nazi years, was secretly copied and distributed throughout occupied Germany. The British authorities felt attacked by Von Galen’s sermon and ordered him to renounce it immediately; he refused. His rising popularity may have contributed to their decision to subsequently allow him free speech without any censorship.

In an interview with Swiss media, Von Galen demanded just punishment for real Nazi criminals but humane treatment for the millions of German prisoners of war who had not committed any crimes but were prohibited by the British from any contact with their relatives. He criticized British dismissal of Germans from public service without investigation and trial, noting that the Nazis had done the same in 1933, but that the Nazi victims had at least continued to receive pensions. He forcefully condemned the expulsion of German civilians from former German provinces and territories in the east annexed by communist Poland and the Soviet Union.

SS-General Kurt Meyer, accused of complicity in the shooting of 18 Canadian prisoners of war (POWs), was sentenced to death. Galen intervened at the request of the family. On second review, a Canadian general, finding only “a mass of circumstantial evidence”, commuted his death sentence. Meyer served nine years in British and Canadian POW prisons. The British forces tried to get support by inviting Dr. Bell, the Anglican Bishop of Chichester, to meet Von Galen for a three way-meeting in October 1945. Bell adjudged Von Galen as possessing enormous moral power, a passion for justice, and well-educated behaviour, and as being very concerned for his people and a defender of ecumenical cooperation.

College of Cardinals

Bl Clemens August von Galen

Unexpectedly, at Christmas 1945 it became known that Pope Pius XII would appoint three new German cardinals, one of them Bishop von Galen, who, despite numerous British obstacles and denial of air travel, arrived in Rome February 5, 1946. Generous American cardinals financed his Roman stay, as German money was not in demand. He had become famous and popular, so after the pope had placed the red hat on his head with the words: ‘God bless you, God bless Germany,’ Saint Peter’s basilica for minutes thundered in a “triumphant applause” for von Galen. He interpreted it as: “A sign of the love of the Pope for our poor German people. Before all the world he has, as a supranational and impartial observer, recognized the German people as equal in the society of nations”. While in Rome, he visited the German POW camps in Taranto and told the German Wehrmacht soldiers that he would take care of their release, and that the Pope himself was working on the release of POWs. He took a large number of comforting personal messages to their worried families.

Death and beatification

Following his return from the wearisome travel to Vatican City, the new cardinal was celebrated enthusiastically in his native Westphalia and in his destroyed city of Münster, which still lay completely in ruins as a result of the air raids. He died a few days after his return from Rome in the St. Franziskus Hospital of Münster due to an appendix infection diagnosed too late. His last words were: “Yes, as God wills it. May God reward you for it. May God protect the dear fatherland. Go on working for him… oh, you dear Saviour!” He was buried in the family crypt of the Galen family in the destroyed Cathedral of Münster.

The cause for beatification was requested by his successor, Bishop Michael Keller of Münster and began under Pope Pius XII in 1956. It was concluded positively in November 2004 under Pope John Paul II. Clemens August Graf von Galen was beatified on October 9, 2005 outside St. Peter’s Basilica by Pope Benedict XVI, the 47th anniversary of the death of Pope Pius (1958).

Relic of Bl. Clemens in Bethen, Germany.


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